Barry Seldes


On his book Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician

Cover Interview of October 07, 2009

The wide angle

My interests in cultural politics include a project I had started before the Bernstein project—a study of the joint work by the Soviet artists Vladimir Mayakovsky and El Lissitzky, their 1923 book, For the Voice.  My emphasis here was especially on Lissitzky’s design for Mayakovsky’s poem, “And You?”

Radically different as the Bernstein work is from this earlier project, both projects trace how the work and sensibilities of creative artists are composed and conditioned by cultural and political milieu.

In my book, I also refer to Bernstein’s contemporaries in theater and fiction—e.g., Saul Bellow, Aaron Copland, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer.  The idea was to understand how that generation acted within their situation.  Of course, the sensibilities of these artists are not reducible to that situation: each one was carrying out his own project.

To understand Bernstein’s project, I went back into his formative years at Harvard.  Bernstein met with, among others, Copland, Serge Koussevitzky, Mark Blitzstein.  He later collaborated with Jerome Robbins and with Lillian Hellman, and, in the early period leading up to his Mass, with Daniel Berrigan. In all these endeavors, Bernstein was composing works that responded to the political and moral climate.  In the last decades of his life, Bernstein hoped to compose a work of operatic or hybrid form that would bring his fellow citizens back to the ethical-political outlook that they professed in the abstract but against which they acted in concrete situations.

In short, Bernstein sought for a form of art in which to indicate his countrymen’s bad faith.